by Barbara Gaskell Denvil
The nursery rhyme ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ has a lot to answer for. As far as can be ascertained, this emanates from 19th century America, but the popular modern supposition is now that it refers to the sufferings of the Plague, thus describing the common symptoms (rings of roses and a-tishu), followed by falling down dead. Cheery! But entirely erroneous.
There are several related forms of the plague, and recently some experts have suggested that the original Black Death was not the bubonic but another similar kind, or even a combination of infections. Others argue that the affliction was indeed the bubonic type, but of a more lethal and unpleasant strain than is presently in existence. However, the symptoms are all sufficiently identical. The bubonic plague was not passed directly between humans and was contagious only via the rodent flea, but the flea was numerous in most human habitations, so the specific cause of infection mattered little. Besides, if the bacteria affected the lungs, this became pneumonic plague, and the sputum was then contagious human to human. Indeed, those thus infected, those desperate souls now dismissed by some writers as suffering from sneezes and the occasional bubo, did instead
suffer from some of the most hideous and agonising symptoms I can imagine.
Once the infected rats had died in large numbers, the fleas carrying the bacteria inevitably looked for other hosts. Humanity, living in close proximity and with generally poor standards of hygiene, was the next step. It seems there was a four to six day incubation period from the moment of actual infection, during which time this horrible condition usually localised, occurred virtually every 15 to 20 years in some area or another. Where this occurred in highly populated areas (such as London) the death toll could still be alarmingly high. The threat of this appalling disease therefore continued and must have haunted people, especially those who saw it as a punishment from God. Throughout the final epidemic in 1665/6, definitely the worst since its very first arrival in the country in 1348, great pits were dug on the outskirts of towns to take the piled corpses. Many of these plague pits have later been uncovered in England, sometimes unearthed due to the subsidence of a building’s foundations unknowingly erected on this unsound ground.
improve for some time afterwards, and the supposition that the Great Fire of London in 1666 was the cleansing miracle, is not supported by experts. But the plague has never devastated England since.
Researching and writing about this dreadful suffering is heartbreaking. I cannot possibly contemplate the utter terror and hopeless misery caused throughout plague affected areas during those 400 relevant years from the 14th to the 17th centuries, and the confusion, terror and bitter loss experienced by both those poor souls afflicted, and by those left alive to mourn the mass deaths of their loved ones.
And not a sneeze in sight.
My own medieval adventure SATIN CINNABAR
and those novels to follow (SUMERFORD’S AUTUMN) will be published online next
year) do not so far contain accounts of the plague, but a passion for research inevitably leads beyond the detailed events of any novel. I personally believe that an understanding of the times combined with insight into contemporary conditions is the only route to writing believable atmosphere.